31 December 2015

Significant Digits, Bonus: Science

Significant Digits, Bonus: Science

John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)
October 3rd, 1998

“Mr. Abercrombie, Ms. Ryan.  How can I help you?” asked the dean, glancing at his wristwatch. “It must be important if you’ve come to see me during my office hours this week.”

Visiting the dean was relatively simple, but annoyingly tedious: you simply pinned a note to the front of your robes about office hours, then snapped a Safety Stick.  Few students ever bothered, especially considering how intimidating the former prodigy and current magical titan could be.  His inaugural speech to the Science Program students hadn’t been especially impressive -- a great deal of fuss about a “pale blue dot” -- but some of the new students in the Program had felt faint just from being in the Tower and in such proximity to the great man.  Craig Abercrombie and Siobhan Ryan thought this visit was necessary, however.

As usual, every team in their year of the Science Program had been given their project on Sunday.  In this instance, each trio of students was handed a small brown box containing the broken shards of a vase and a small card of information.  Craig, Siobhan, and Perry Paderau got a box full of white-glazed pieces decorated with delicate designs in blue and green.  The card had informed them that this was formerly an Art Nouveau vase created by Leon Solon, and told them that they were required to “repair the vase” without magic.  You may use magic in any way you please during the process, as long as no spell directly touches or affects the pieces of the vase.  Points will be awarded based on the completeness of the restoration, overall aesthetic effect, and creativity.

“Well, sir, it’s just got to be Muggle glue, right?” said Craig.  “Nothing else you can do.  Not much of a challenge.  We were wondering if you might talk to Professor Syracuse about it, and get him to change it a bit.”

“I suggested this assignment, actually,” said Dean of the Science Program Harry Potter-Evans-Verres.  He leaned back in his chair behind the huge wooden table, adjusting his glasses, and gestured at a pile of books at one end of the table.  Craig recognized some of the textbooks from the science program and several books on pottery styles and history, along with a handful of note-filled parchments.

There was a brief pause as the two students absorbed this information, then Siobhan spoke up.  “Sir, I’m not sure it fits with some of the other projects we’ve done.  They all needed… well, you had to think about them.  This will just be… tedious.  Gluing things together.”

“Don’t underestimate the value of patience, Ms. Ryan,” said the dean.  “Having the fortitude to do something annoying and fiddly is a key aspect of good science.”  He pushed himself back from the big table, and stood up, gesturing vaguely.  “A few rooms away is a project I’ve been working on for years, trying minor variations on the same thing over and over again to try to find the exact shielding that will work for my purposes.  And I’ll probably keep working at it tomorrow, and next week, and so on.  If you’ve decided on a way to complete your project, don’t quit just because it seems tedious.  Most worthwhile things are tedious at some point, so you should get used to tedium… as long as it’s for a good purpose, and not just busywork.”

“This is just different than Professor Syracuse’s previous assignments, that’s all,” said Siobhan.

Craig nodded in agreement, and then his face lit up.  “There was something about this sort of thing in one of our books…”
He walked over to the pile of books and notes that the dean had indicated.  He leafed through them until he found what he was looking for: a copy of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!   Craig opened it and began flipping through it, rapidly.

Some of the previous weekly projects from the Professor of Engineering had been:
  • Construct a way to view a basilisk with sufficient clarity that it could be effectively fought.  Any means allowed, Muggle or magical.  Entries included glasses with mirrors built into them, blindfolds enchanted with vitalis revelio, a purchased pair of Muggle night-vision goggles, and a simple piece of parchment inscribed with the words, “Use the Killing Curse and then view it as much as you want.”
  • Build upon last week’s work studying Muggle agriculture, and suggest a new way to improve it in a well-structured essay.  No minimum number of inches.  Answers were almost universally centered around either the use of magical creatures (interbreeding, pest control, etc.) or the production of fresh water (wide-scale weather management, enchanted saltwater filters, etc.)  The most successful team pointed out that simply using Vanishing Rooms would result in the biggest improvement to Muggle agriculture, eliminating all the problems of preservation and transportation.
  • Go to the northeast corridor, take the second stairwell, go left down the hall, and enter the eighteenth room on the left.  Once the door locks behind you, your team will have one hour to escape.  You may not use your wands.  You may bring anything else with you that you wish.  Students brought lockpicks enchanted with flawless function, battering rams transfigured to a small size, bottles of magical fire or Bundimun acid, and other things.  Most plans had needed to be altered somewhat after the door vanished.
  • This is a Muggle device known as a “mousetrap,” used in place of the Vermexous Charm.  It is missing the spring which would normally power it with mechanical energy.  Make it work.  Points will be awarded based on the effectiveness of the trap on a living mouse and creativity.  Most teams succeeded to get the trap to work, replacing the spring with twisted rope or other solutions.  The two winning teams, however, found more innovative approaches.  One team had put a lump of poisoned bait on the trap and ignored the device’s original purpose.  The other had tied the broken mousetrap to the back of a hungry kneazle.
  • Write an essay in three parts: (1) Where is an example of the Pareto Principle at work within Hogwarts?  (2)  Where can you find an example of the normal distribution in Hogwarts?  (3)  Identify a place where you would normally expect to find an example of either concept, even though it is not present.  No minimum number of inches.
  • Golden Snitches have been immobilized and hidden throughout the fifth floor.  Find any Snitch, but remember that most sensory spells will not be effective.  Do not go past the mungbeans or you will certainly become lost.  Only two teams had won.  The first had gone and purchased a new Golden Snitch in Hogsmeade, pointing out that the rules didn’t state which Snitch they needed to find.  The other had researched the history of Quidditch’s most famous cheaters and found a little-known fifteenth-century charm to divine the location of a Snitch.  It used a distinctive wand motion.  The following month, the Seeker for the Slough Sizzlers was fined a hundred Galleons and barred from competition.

After a moment of searching through the book, Craig had found the part he wanted.

“Sir, remember when Mr. Feynman goes to Brasilia and talks to them about what they do with their science education?”  Dean Potter nodded; it was one of the more famous parts of the book.  “Well, sir, Mr. Feynman says they have to choose a way because of ‘a good reason, a sensible reason; not just because other countries do.’ ”  The student tapped the spot in the book.

“Yes, Mr. Abercrombie.  But I assure you, we’re not doing this project just because other engineering classes do it this way.”  The dean smiled indulgently, and the expression paradoxically made him look very young.  He was only a few years older than them, after all.

“Yes, sir, but maybe you’re assigning this project because you’re doing the sort of thing you think that Mr. Feynman would do?” said Craig, questioningly.  He closed the book and set it back down with the rest.

Siobhan frowned, shaking her head.  “Well, I don’t know if that’s it, Craig.  I just thought...”

“It’s a good point,” said the dean, looking thoughtful.  “When I was younger, I spent quite a bit of time feeling frustrated with my teachers, and wishing I had a truly talented and creative tutor.  I wasn’t quite prepared when I got my wish.”  He fell quiet for a moment, and the students waited, a bit impatient despite their awe.  The dean was either referring to Albus Dumbledore or David Monroe, and it was a dramatic reminder of how close they were to history… but they still wanted to leave as soon as possible.

“I’ll think about it,” said the dean.  “And before I give any more suggestions to Professor Syracuse, I’ll write out some clear lesson objectives.  Cleverness isn’t a substitute for pedagogy, I suppose.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Craig and Siobhan, just slightly out of unison.  They seemed discomfited by the end of the conversation; Craig was tugging at his robes nervously and Siobhan was visibly sweating.  They left without another word.


The ensuing week was relatively normal -- or what passed for normal in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s Science Program, which was not known for its normality.  The lower-form students (in their first two years of the Program) scurried in small packs from one class to another, learning the rudiments of seven core subjects and one elective.  The upper-form students spent their time with fewer professors, studying the rudiments of a few branches of science and doing labs.  It was a ruthlessly intense program, and more than half of the students quit during their first year.

Professor Syracuse’s afternoon class on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays was a group of fourth-years.  They had a swagger about them: they’d survived three years of a course of study that was already legendary for its difficulty, surpassing even the Salem Witches’ Institute’s “Trial by Fire” graduate school of languages.  In another year, they’d be choosing independent courses of study in magical science in the School of Doubt, working with Tower or Unspeakable researchers -- or even just beginning careers, if they wanted.  They would be the third graduating class of the Science Program, and they were on top of the world.

Truth be told, the swagger in these fourth-years might explain why Professor Santo Syracuse agreed so readily to the vase project when it was suggested by Dean Potter-Evans-Verres.  Such an assignment had good prospects for teaching some arrogant teenagers a little humility.

“Sit down, sit down,” snapped Professor Syracuse.  “Paderau!  You heard me!  Sit down and be quiet!  We have no time for your nonsense -- the ladies aren’t impressed.  If you want to impress them, learn your equations.”

The boy in question stood up from where he’d been crouched between two witches and walked around their station back towards his own in the back, wearing an expression of aggrieved innocence.  He sat down between Siobhan and Craig, making as much noise as possible as he settled his elbows on the high table and his rear on the stool.  His partners exchanged a look of annoyance behind his back.

Professor Syracuse watched him intently for a moment to be sure that the admonishment had been effective, then brightened as he turned to the class as a whole.  He was a thin man of average height, and gloriously bald, with a shiny pink scalp and a mouth that twitched from side to side when he was excited.  He was often excited.

“Today we’ll spend the first hour on project presentation, and then after the break we’ll be doing more work on friction,” the professor said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation and illustration.  “We’ll try to hammer at least a few basic principles into you, so that you’re only woefully ignorant, and not completely ignorant.  It will be a rich, full day.”  He waggled his eyebrows in anticipation.  “Okay!  Get out your projects -- whatever you have, get it out, even if it’s just your notes!  You can put your binders away for now.  Do not spill your flobberworm mucus or murtlap essence, or you will be cleaning everyone’s station at the end of the afternoon.”

There was some shuffling and murmuring as people got themselves sorted, taking out whatever their team had managed to complete that week.  All six of the teams appeared to have put together something in order to repair the vase, but as everyone looked around, they saw a variety of solutions.

“What did we get done, guys?” Perry Paderau asked the other two, in a hushed voice.

“ ‘We’ didn’t get anything done… Craig and I did finish something, though,” answered Siobhan, annoyed.  She was arranging a closed box in front of herself, carefully.

“Don’t be that way, Ryan… it’s been crazy this past week,” said Perry, frowning.  “My dad wants me to come work for him when we get done this year, and so I’ve been trying to get some extra help from Professor Sprout in the evenings.”  Perry’s father grew Sopophorous beans for export.

“You didn’t do anything, you just let Siobhan and I do it, and now you’re going to take credit,” said Craig, irritably.

Perry turned to him, and spoke in a harsh whisper, “Hey, you’re not the one who’s expected to spend the rest of his life with baskets of Mooncalf dung and a pair of silver scissors, okay?  Do you know how often you need to sharpen silver scissors?”  He scowled.  “I did all the work to get us out of that room last month, when the door vanished, so have some mercy, will you?”

“This is the only time,” said Siobhan.

“Fine!” said Perry, a bit too loudly.

“Quiet over there!” said Professor Syracuse, darting his gaze at their team.  He frowned.  “Again, Paderau?  One point from Ravenclaw!”  Perry groaned and slumped forward on the table.  “Okay, first team… Jess, Raphael, Sally… what do you have?”

Two boys and a girl rose from their stools and walked awkwardly to the front table.  They set a vase down, carefully, as well as two small bowls.  The vase was small, brown, and extremely plain.

“Our solution was simple.  We had a broken vase, and we needed to make a working vase -- to ‘repair’ it.  So it seemed to us like the best thing would be to just make a new vase, rather than trying to remake the old one.”  She gestured at the table, and one of her teammates dipped his fingers into one of the small bowls, lifting out a palmful of brown powder.  “We took the pieces of the original vase and ground them down into dust.  Then we took that dust,” she gestured again, and another teammate displayed a handful of dark clay, “and we added water, turning it back into clay.  We didn’t use any magic on the pieces, before or after we ground them down.  We didn’t even use Aguamenti to create the water -- we just used the tap.”  She sounded very proud.

“Then,” she said, gesturing at the brown pot, “we made a pot, and asked a house elf to put it in the kilns for us the next time they fired something.  We got it back this morning, and here is the pot: clean and new, and in one piece.”

The professor approached the front table, frowning.  “Full marks for creativity, and I suppose this is a ‘complete restoration.’ ”  He picked up their pot, and examined it.  “I am actually surprised that this worked.  I wouldn’t have thought that you’d be able to grind it down and then just re-fire it.  The vitrification… hmm…”

Professor Syracuse drew his wand and tapped the side of the pot twice, saying, “Aparecium.”  The pot and the bowl of clay changed color -- very slightly, tinting itself just a bit pink.  The bowl of powder, on the other hand, turned red.  The professor turned to regard the trio of students, eyebrow raised.  “Oddly, very little of the invisible dye seems to have found its way into your new pot… almost as though you just mixed a little in with new clay, after discovering that your plan wouldn’t work.”

They muttered some excuses, but the professor was already waving them back to their seats.  “If you want to remedy your low score today, then I’d suggest you each write me thirteen inches on why you think your plan didn’t work, and what you should have done instead.  I’d also suggest availing yourself of the library, this time around.  If you’d done even a bit of research -- or if you’d been paying attention when we discussed ceramics -- you’d have known about why this wouldn’t work.”

Professor Syracuse turned back to the class.  “Next.”

The next two teams had simply glued the vase back together.  One of the teams had done much better than the other, and had clearly taken the time to choose a specific kind of glue and practice, while the other team’s vase had small chips missing and beaded lines of overflow dried along the seams.  It even leaned a bit to the side.

Professor Syracuse commented on patience and conscientiousness as each team presented their work.  The team that would go last watched in dismay, since it was obvious to everyone in the room that they had done the worst job -- their glue didn’t even look dry.  One of them muttered a charm under their breath, and tried to subtly position their box so that it hid her efforts to use the warming spell on her work.


The fourth team had tried hard for the “creative” and “aesthetics” points as a strategy, and had used the pieces of their broken vase as a mosaic on the outside of a different vase, breaking them into even smaller fragments and arranging them in an attractive pattern.  They held up drawings they’d copied from a book with a Quarto Quickening Quill from Queevel's, showing different examples of mosaics in art around the world, as well as a large diagram indicating the best way to fit the pieces and stick them in place.  They were a very thorough group, and the class was just lucky that they hadn’t had time to make a diorama of a Pompeiian antechamber.  They looked to be leading the class this week, easily.

“Next,” said the professor, gesturing at Craig, Siobhan, and Perry.

The three of them got up.  Siobhan carried the box with their project in it.  She set it down, stood in front of it, and took out the vase.  The white vase stood tall, and patterns of blue meshed with patterns of green on its surface.  All of the pieces had been placed neatly where they belonged, but despite this care, the seams were clearly visible.  Indeed, they gleamed with gold.  Thick lines of the metal traced the joints between each piece.  It was ostentatious, calling attention to the damage rather than trying to hide it.

Perry looked horrified.  “This looks like we went mad,” he hissed to Siobhan.

Shut up,” she whispered back, fiercely.

“We wanted to do a technique from Japan called ‘kintsugi.’  It’s a traditional Japanese craft, and part of an approach that doesn’t try to hide the history of a piece of broken ceramic, but instead make that history part of the visible story of the piece,” Craig said, sounding a bit wooden and rehearsed.  “We couldn’t find a shop that sold the sort of lacquer that would work, which comes from a special tree, so we experimented with different things -- potions and some goop from a Doxy nest and that sort of thing that we thought might work.”

“This is Skele-Grow, reduced by half,” said Siobhan, and she carefully lifted the pot and held it up.  “We added a tiny bit of bone to activate it, and dusted it with some powdered gold.  Not a lot, and it turns out to be cheaper than you’d think --”

“Because it’s very ductile, so it can be made extremely thin,” interrupted Perry, smiling as he was won over.

“...and so our receipts still only total up to about five Sickles,” finished Siobhan, after an annoyed glance at Perry.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Professor Syracuse, looking positively delighted.  “It looks beautiful -- and it shows not just creativity, but real scholarship.  This is actually -- my goodness -- this is actually something specifically mentioned to me by the dean when we discussed this project!  He is quite a Japanophile, in fact, and we discussed the wabi-sabi aesthetic in particular!”  The professor shook his head, marveling. “I know we don’t have any books on the topic… how exactly did you learn about this technique?”

“Ah, well,” said Craig, thinking about the notes on the table in the Tower that he’d read while looking for the Feynman book.  “We remembered what you said about ‘social engineering’...  it’s easier if you start with half the solution.  So we asked around.

The top sheet had read:

Santo, one final thought on my suggested assignment for next week:

I don’t want to step on your toes, or make you feel like you have to give this.  We promised you broad discretion when Minerva first came to you about your position in Killarney, and that hasn’t changed.  This is just an idea I thought would be fun. The idea here isn’t just to make it difficult or tedious, since students will encounter enough of that without our help.  But we’re giving them only the rudiments of a scientific education here… I want to challenge them as much as possible.  I mentioned kintsugi to you as one possible solution to the project, but it’s also a metaphor for the wizarding world.  You’re a Muggleborn, and you were ostracized for relying on Muggle science for your research on mermaids and evolution, so you know what we’re up against as we try to change society.  These students are golden, but we have to make them strong... so they can hold together a broken world.



I think it goes back to my high school days. In computer class, the first assignment was to write a program to print the first 100 Fibonacci numbers. Instead, I wrote a program that would steal passwords of students. My teacher gave me an A.
-Kevin Mitnick


  1. WRT the Mitnick quote, I recall an event from my own high school experience. A friend of mine was caught in the library using PuTTY to do some stuff on his home computer. The tech-illiterate librarian just saw white text on black background and assumed he was "hacking" the school computers, and his computer privileges at school ended up getting revoked as a result.

    His response was to exploit a vulnerability in the school's login system; you could access usernames and hashed passwords of people that had logged in to a particular physical machine without logging in. He would save the passwords to a flash drive and crack them at home, and be able to log in as anyone he pleased for several months, before the system forced a password change.

    So, he got banned from the school's computers for hacking, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong for years. Then he started hacking. Now, in his professional life, he's got his name on a patent (something about data analysis and heuristics).

  2. I do not understand the end quote. Unless it's simply that the guy realised the teacher wanted evidence of ability to code and didn't actually care about the number.

    But getting an A in our current education system for that would make Harry's "fixing" seem out fo place.

    1. no the point is the guy totally stole answers from people and apparently didn't get caught because they are all trying to create the same data so turning in a copy of someone's work really would fly under the radar super easily because he'll have a code to write the first 100 Fibonacci numbers by the end of it.

      I don't think that a normal teacher would really give Quirrell points if they knew they were being duped.